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A human skull ! I bought it passing cheap ; 

Of course 'twas dearer to its first employer. 
I thought Mortality did well to keep 

Some mute memento of the old Destroyer. 



[All Rights Reserved.'^ 





Circa 1794. 



I SELDOM pass the sleepy-looking * Bear ' Inn, originally 
the ' Bear and Ragged Staff ' (the cognizance of a 
branch of the Warwick family, who lived at Beau- 
champ's Court near here), in the town of Alcester, 
without calling to mind a remarkable interview which 
took place some eighty years ago in connection with 
the front room on the right-hand side of that quaint 
Jacobean entrance. And now that Mr. M., the only 
person likely to be affected by this disclosure, has 
passed away at the age of seventy-five, I no longer feel 
hesitation in transcribing from rough notes and 
memoranda made and collected by him, a series of 
facts which may startle all those who, like myself, 
reverence the very dust of the immortal bard. 

That Shakespeare's skull was stolen admits, I think, 
of very little doubt ; yet I must not anticipate, but 

6 How Shakespeare s Skull zvas Stolen. 

endeavour to trace ' this strange eventful history ' from 
its beginning. 

The uncle of the late Mr. M., a youth who bore the 
name of Frank Chambers, was placed with a medical 
man (the only one practising in Alcester) about the 
year 1787. He was a wild, rather dashing young 
fellow ; not bad-looking, if a portrait taken in after 
years be evidence ; and, coming straight from attend- 
ance at a London hospital, found the exclusive society 
of a small town uncongenial, and its restraints irksome. 
Owing to a certain mild escapade — the manuscript 
alleges that it was nothing more heinous than a 
practical joke upon the curate in charge at the tumble- 
down old rectory — he found it convenient to leave 
Alcester and to go abroad ; and as Englislimen did not 
then dream of a trip to America or to Australia, his 
Avanderings were confined to France, The heart of the 
French nation was then beginning to throb with the 
feverish heat of revolution, and 'gentlemen of the 
pav6 ' had already defined liberty on the * lucus a non 
lucendo ' principle. 

Frank Chambers, like Arthur Young, was a strict 
observer of the national moral bankruptcy, and three 
of his letters from Eheims show that he was not 
deceived, like some greater minds among his own 
countrymen, by the tendency of thought and action in 
France at that remarkable period. When one hundred 
thousand Frenchmen were compelled by the murderous 

Tlie Origin of the Plot. 7 

hatred of an ignorant mob, and by the destruction of 
their stately chateaux, to flee in haste, there was * no 
room of safety ' for a son of perfide Albion. Frank 
returned to England, during what year I know not, but 
in a letter written from London without date, he 
mentions the exceptional severity of the winter, which 
probably was that of 1791. 

Again he came to Alcester, and, assisting his former 
employer, was well known in the neighbourhood as a 
jovial, light-hearted fellow. 

Two or three years pass without record, until he 
mentions the arrival of Lord "William Seymour on a 
visit to his brother. Lord Hertford, at Eagley Hall, a 
splendid mansion overlooking, like a haughty custodian, 
the quiet little town. 

Frank Chambers became acquainted with Lord 
"William, although there could be little fellowship be- 
tween the harsh, penurious, and eccentric habits of his 
lordship and those of the incipient surgeon. But the 
intimacy was of this advantage to the latter : that it 
proved the introduction to the excellent and sometimes 
notable company which the newly-created marquis 
gathered round him at rare intervals at his Warwick- 
shire seat. It also leads to that startling adventure 
which until now has been as secret as the grave. 

I have more than once questioned the late Mr. M. as 
to its precise date, but he assured me that, although his 
uncle kept a rough diary at intervals, half professional, 

8 How Shakespeare s Skull was Stolen. 

half domestic — extracts from which, are before me, 
wherein even such trivial matters are entered as : ' Aug. 
4th. Eode over to the " Love Cup," at Alne, where I 
had a quart of Barium perry. Saw Jim Morris ; he 
has a fine colt at the MiU pasture.' ' March 8th. 
Drove the doctor to a consultation with Dr. Brandis 
at Hinley' (query, Henley- in -Ard en) — the year is 
seldom given, or even the month. 

He seems, however, to have taken some pains in re- 
cording observations made by men of mark at Lord 
Hertford's table, and found especial pleasure in de- 
scribing the good things with which that table was 
furnished, mixing, as in Tom Hood's sonnet, sauce and 
sentiment with concise impartiality. Thus he writes : 
' When Garrick was at Eagley, some years ago, Lord 
Hertford says that he gave a comical performance in 
the steward's room for the amusement of the servants 
and others ; and he told his host afterwards that one 

of the audience was as hard to unlace as the old 

Speaker (the name is illegible), for when the 

folks were shaking with laughter " Hob-nail " grunted 
out, " Didst ever th' see Jack Murrel grin through a 
horse-collar at the ' Barley Mow,' Stoodley, eh ?" ' 

Then follows a minute description of the viands at 
that day's dinner, with the remark, ' The popular dish, 
macaroni, as served by the Duke of York's chef de 
cuisine — delicious !' 

Also, ' My lord told Mr. William Throckmorton, in 

The Origin of the Plot. 9 

iiiy hearing, that when Hume and Lord Lyttelton ' 
(this must have been Thomas, the second baron, better 
known as the wicked Lord Lyttelton) ' were at the 
Hall they had a violent quarrel, in consequence of 
which "a meeting" was arranged at the kennels; 
" but," said he, " Nugent smoothed Tom's ruffled 
feathers, and his honour was carried to Halesowen 
that night, whilst I ' satisfied ' Hume next day by 
letting him contradict everybody round the table." 
We had stewed eels, Severn lampreys, with a haunch 
of mutton wrapt in paste, boiled turkey, ham, and 
pastry, with cheese to follow.' 

I now come to the careful entry in the diary which 
seems to have suggested the extraordinary expedition 
of Frank Chambers. Mark me, there is no date ; but 
from the two entries immediately preceding — ' Received 
a brace of pheasants from John Wilcox, of Wixford : 
first this season,' and ' Lord Hertford tells me of the 
serious illness of Mr. Millar, his son's old tutor ' — we 
may reasonably fix the autumn of 1794. ' Sent for to 
Eagley Hall to converse with the Abb6 Latour, who 
had just arrived from France with dismal accounts of 
the provinces. Fearful scenes, which I was able to 
confirm from my experience. Found that the Abb6 
knew Edgworth, Gardel, Eancourt, and Bertini, among 
former acquaintances of mine. We dined at six 
o'clock : everything pretty good, but not so well served 
as usual. Had to wait for hermitage. Besides Lord 

10 How Shakespeare' s Skull luas Stolen. 

Hertford and tlie ladies, met the Eev. Samuel Parr, 
two Mr. Conways, Mr. Ingram, also Captain Fortescue, 
Mr. Knight, Mr. Eudge, Joshua Jennings, and other 
neighbouring gentry. Dr. Parr very glum : sate with 
a large napkin under his chin, heeding nobody, and 
feeding as if the fellow had kept right off all the fasts 
in the calendar. . . . After dinner the conversation 
somehow turned upon the " Stratford Jubilee," and 
Captain Fortescue wondered if Shakespeare's image in 
the old church, especially the head, was really like 
him. " You had besth dig him up, John Fortescue," 
said Dr. Parr (who lisped, and called the poet Thack- 
thpear) ; " may I be there to thee." Then Squire 
Moore mentioned that old Horace Walpole had offered, 
after the Jubilee, to give George Selwyn three hundred 
guineas if he could secure Shakespeare's head. Where- 
upon Parr remarked, "If he could thteal away hith 
brainth, that were cheap to him, thir." Afterwards I 
walked home beside the doctor's pony to Bartlam's. 
He was near being spilt opposite Griffith's at Arrow.' 

The Plot. II 



Herb we leave the diary for a time, and I quote from 
notes made after conversation with the late Mr, M,, 
who often begged the recital of this singular exploit 
from his Uncle Chambers, and who himself transcribed 
in full some salient features of it. From which it 
appears that, upon returning home after the above 
dinner at Ragley, Frank Chambers pondered well how 
he could gratify his old inclination for adventure, and 
the liberal curiosity of the well-known curioso of 
Strawberry Hill, He then lodged at the surgery, a 
comely-looking house still standing at the corner of 
Malt Mill Lane, Alcester, It was built during the 
reign of Queen Anne by a branch of the Boteler family, 
whose arms — a chevron between three cups, as seen in 
the great east window of the chantry chapel attached 
to St, Milburge's at Wixford — were, until the door 
was renewed some fifty years ago, carved on an oval 
shield within the scroll pediment over the entrance. 
Here, in a room on the first floor, still, I think, 

12 How SJiakespeave' s Skull was Stolen. 

bearing traces of old adornment, three men joined 
Chambers one night in the autumn of 1794. Their 
names were Cull, Dyer, and Hawtin, and they were 
supposed to call for some medicine for their wives. 
The only bottles on the table were, however, supplied 
by the near-hand ' Golden Cup,' and the medicines 
were of an extremely comfortable and exhilarating 
nature. Frank Chambers had some professional dealings 
with the men previously ; and he used laughingly to 
regret that, with a large churchyard within a few feet 
of his own door, even then full to repletion, he had 
been obliged to further the interests of science at the 
expense of the disused humanity of a neighbouring 
parish, Alcester churchyard being too public for noc- 
turnal visitations. 

' It is not for that I want you,' he said, '■ but to get 
at the skull of a chap who has been dead nearly two 
hundred years.' 

' Why, you've got one as looks a thousan' year old 
already,' interposed Mr. Hawtin. There was a some- 
what grim article of the kind nibbling the hard ledge 
of the high mantelpiece. 

' That's it, Jim ; I want another to bear him company. 
The poor fellow finds it unked here o' nights since he 
was swinging free and easy on Mappleborough Green.' 

' Well, young master,' exclaimed Harry Cull, ' I are 
game, so be these ; where's the dig, and what's the 
shot V 

The Plot. 13 

* Stratford Church, and three pounds apiece for the 

' With laps,' put in Hawtin, who had at first hesi- 
tated about joining, and whose bibulous propensities 
were notorious. 

'Any quantity after it is over; not a drop before,' 
said Chambers. 

' I met these fellows at Stratford Church ' (writes the 
late Mr. M., from Frank Chambers's dictation). ' It is 
so long ago that I forget the exact date, yet I remember 
uncommonly well it was a near thing about getting 
there at all ; for just when I ought to have been setting 
off, old Grafton down the street took it into his head to 
have a fit, and as he was a capital patient, I had to 
remain by the bedside until the doctor returned from 
seeing Mistress Sarah Wilcox of More Hall. It was 
very dark, too ; and in my haste I pitched head-fore- 
most over a footstone near the west door, and cut my 
nose. To my surprise I found Cull and Tom Dyer 
already hard on, whilst Hawtin scouted, shovelling the 
earth from the base of a new square tomb on the south 
side of the chancel, about ten yards from the small 

' " What the deuce are you at T said I. 

< " Why, you see," answered Dyer, " we warn't 
agoing to wait here all night ; and this 'are's your mon, 
I reckon." 

14 Hozu Shakespeare's Skull was Stolen. 

' What could the idiots be dreaming about "? Their 
mistake was afterwards thus explained. I had men- 
tioned to Hawtin (it must have been when I was to}>- 
heavy) that the skull I wished to secure at Stratford 
was that of one "William Shakespeare. j!^ow, Hawtin 
was sweet on a Stratford lass named Esther White, who 
lived in service at Parson Davenport's, and went court- 
ing every Sunday. Like a fool, he told her our inten- 
tion. He would have worked the oracle to better 
purpose could he have obtained the keys of the church. 
Hawtin, who was rather scared at the adventure, asked 
Esther if she knew anything about William Shake- 
speare. At first she could only call to mind an inn 
bearing that name ; but at length she remembered a 
man asking to see master about a tomb to William 
Shakespeare, and she showed Hawtin where it was. 

' The maid's memory was defective, and neither she 
nor Hawtin could read, or another name would have 
appeared, the tomb being really built over the remains 
of William Shakespeare Payton, a man well-known in 
Stratford, who died in the autumn a year or two 
before. Hawtin's hesitation about the adventure had 
turned to eagerness when he conceived that this tomb 
would be the centre of our operations ; and he was 
taken aback when I whispered to him that he had set 
his mates on the wrong scent. 

' " Put the soil back," I said, " this is not the man ; 
didn't I tell you he was inside, and 200 years old." 

The Plot. 15 

* " Yes !" answered one, " but we thought that that 
was only your gammon." 

' " So you wished to gammon me in return ; but now, 
my lads," I continued, " sharp's the word ; we have 
lost two hours already, and Battersbee, with his bull's- 
eye, looks round sometimes." 

* I thought we never should get inside that church. 
The windows were far above our heads, and well pro- 
tected by stout stanchions. Dyer, who had served in a 
smithy, worked with a will at the lock of the chancel 
door, using the tools I had brought ; but those con- 
founded old locks have a way of keeping close, and it 
would not yield. Farther down on the same side was 
a larger door of ribbed oak, and here Tom was making 
way when Hawtin scattered us with the caution, " Men 
among the trees." 

* I crept round towards the porch, and, resting on a 
mound, I plainly heard footsteps on the broad flags in 
the avenue. I crept nearer. The overhanging boughs, 
with remnants of leaves, made it too dark to distinguish 
any form. I doubt if I could have seen a ghost ; but 
I was within a few feet of the heavy tread of a man, 
multiplied by Hawtin's fears — a man, as shown by the 
voice, which was low and husky. He paced to and fro, 
the whole length of the avenue ; sometimes hurriedly, 
and then he would pause. Likely enough he had just 
left the public-house, for his speech was sometimes 
incoherent, and sometimes sadly too plain. He gave 

1 6 How Shakespeare s Skull was Stolen. 

vent to a deep trouble. His daughter, for he called 
passionately upon his child, had been buried here. A 
great wrong had been done, by whom I could not make 
out ; but he shook the gates angrily, and muttered 
three times, " I will — yes, I will !" Long afterwards I 
discovered that his anger had been justly caused by a 
lamentable occurrence at Bidford Grange. At length, 
(it seemed an hour) he moved rapidly away ; and having 
reassured my companions, we returned to the charge. 
The door was soon opened, and, tinder-box in hand, we 
groped our way to the great chancel, and with consider- 
able difficulty, for the letters were much worn, I singled 
out the slab, tlitn about three feet by seven feet, which 
covers the remains of Shakespeare. 

' Hawtin waited on the outside, to throw a list ball 
against the windows in case of alarm, whilst Dyer and 
Cull, by the dim light of two curiously contrived 
lanterns, began to pick out the mortar dividing that 
slab from Thomas Nashe's. Great care was necessary, 
that no trace of our search might remain. 

' As the men stealthily worked, the gloomy silence 
was quite chilling. Several times the woodwork in 
the high pews went off with a bang like a gum-tree ; 
and once I could almost have sworn that I heard a 
rumbling in the Clopton Chapel. When the stone 
was raised and placed on one side, there was very little 
masonry beneath, chiefly a thick layer of fine brown 
mould, mixed with woody fibre and fragments of glass, 

The Plot. 17 

which had been sabject to the actioa of fire. There 
was evidence also of a previous disturbance, for, in 
addition to a circular piece of metal the size of a guinea, 
having on one side two crowns and a tieur-de-lis, and on 
the other a shield bearing three trees, and the name 
Ashwin beneath, we turned up a thigh-bone and finger- 
joints near the surface, and afterwards several teeth, 
with a knot of oak and a few attenuated nails with 
square heads. 

' But the most curious discovery was that of a ring, 
or fillet, probably of bronze, very much worn and 
indented, in which an inscription had been traced, the 
only legible part being, as I afterwards found, the half 
Eoman letters, G- U — L M — S (then follows a device 
like a sword), and a rude monogram, H. S. or I. H. S. 

' The men had dug to the depth of three feet, and I 
now watched narrowly, for, by the clogging of the 
darker earth, and that peculiar humid state — smell I 
can hardly call it — which sextons and earth-grubbers so 
well understand, I knew we were nearing the level 
where the body had formerly mouldered. 

* " No shovels but the hands," I whispered, " and 
feel for a skull." 

' There was a long pause as the fellows, sinking in the 
loose mould, slid their horny palms over fragments of 
bone. Presently, " I got him," said CuD ; *' but he's 
fine and heavy." 

* Delving to the armpits with both hands, he tugged 

1 8 Hozv Shakespeare's Shtll was Stolen. 

for some seconds, and then brought up a huge grey 
stone, like that with which the church is built. 

' I began to be sceptical, when Tom Dyer, who was 
groping some two feet away from where the skull ought 
to have been, according to the position of the slab, came 
upon it, and lifted it out, diving again for the jaw. 

' I handled Shakespeare's skull at last, and gazed at 
it only for a moment, for time was precious. It was 
smaller than I expected, and in formation not much 
like what I remembered of the effigy above our heads. 
At home I made a minute examination, the particulars of 
which, with other memoranda, were lent to Dr. Booker, 
of Alcester, and subsequently lost, much to my regret. 

'Then my men most carefully replaced the earth 
and stone, ramming all interstices with fragments of 
old mortar brought for the purpose. This, with a 
liberal sprinkling of dust, plentiful in the old church 
at that time, effectually concealed our depredations. 
My men were surprised at the care which I bestowed 
upon the venerable article. " Any skull from the 
charnel-house close by," they remarked, " would have 
answered fully as well, without the labour." 

'"Every man has his fancy," I replied; "this is 

' When we reached Oversley Bridge, I gave them 
their money, and more ; and a few hours afterwards 
paid for nine quarts of ale at the " Globe," so that they 
seemed well satisfied with the night's adventure.' 

The Result. 19 



* My next step,' continues Frank Chambers, ' was to 
write in strict confidence to the much-talked-of Mr. 
Walpole, now Lord Orford. He had been lately stay- 
ing with Marshal Conway during the latter's illness, at 
Park Place, in Oxfordshire, and my letter followed 
him, and was answered from Berkeley Square. 

* He remembered the expression of his former keen 
interest in Shakespeare, politely appreciated my confi- 
dence and labours, and "would give all the skulls of 
his living relatives," so he wrote, " to possess that of 
the deceased bard ;" but he offered no terms. Again 
I wrote. He replied that he had been ill, was worn 
to a skeleton, and at nearly four-score could not meet 
me in Warwickshire. Would I oblige him by coming 
to Strawberry Hill, and then all could be arranged. 

' Believing that he was shuffling, and desirous of 
peeping, without paying for the show, I stated my in- 
ability to comply with his request, and, reminding 
him of his old offer of 300 guineas for Shakespeare's 


20 Hoiv Shakespeare s Skull ivas Stolen. 

skull, begged to know if lie were still anxious to 
possess it. 

' There was further delay. At length he arranged to 
send down a confidant to treat with me for the treasure, 
and late one evening in December a message was left 
at my rooms from a Mr. Kirgall, or some such name, 
requesting to see me at the " Bear " Inn.' 

(Then comes the interview, to which reference has 
been made.) 

' Upon entering the low-pitched room, a middle-aged 
man came forward, dressed in a manner antiquated even 
for those days. He was rather short, had weak eyes, 
and was deferential almost to timidity. He had been 
in Alcester, he said, many years before, and remembered 
as a lad taking down some figures with reference to a 
new church under the direction of his present em- 
ployer and Colonel Conway; and had copied a design 
for a tower somewhere near. He was now sent to 
express his lordship's pleasure and cordial congratula- 
tions at my success in securing the veritable skull of 
Shakespeare. Might he be allowed to inspect % 

'I fetched it. Mr. Kirgall was in raptures. His 
lordship, who had kept our correspondence a profound 
secret, known only to two maiden ladies and the dear 
Duchess of Gloucester, would indeed rejoice to possess 
— the loan of it. AVould I entrust it to his keeping ? 
" At one price," I rejoined, eventually reducing that 
price considerably. 

TJie Result. 21 

' The gentleman still dallied ; and, soon seeing that 
his errand was merely to obtain an unconditional loan 
of the article, I prepared to leave the room. He 
sought to detain me. Did I consider the risk of 
having a stolen skull % The Earl did not wish to 
retain it for his own pleasure, but to show it to other 
people ; " besides," he added, forgetting his diffidence, 
"it might not be genuine." Here I stopped him. 
Finding that I was firm, and further parley on Lord 
Orford's behalf useless, Mr. Kirgall sought to do a little 
business on his own account. Examining the skull 
and the jaw, which I had attached, he noticed that, 
whilst the molars had disappeared, there were several 
front teeth in a fair state of preservation, although 
loose from exposure. Might he extract one, only 
one % he would fee me handsomely. 

'"AH, or none," ' I replied ; and, taking up the skull, 
I abruptly wished him good-night. 

' Putting my head out of the window early next 
morning to answer a call, I saw my dear friend holding 
the open door of the London coach opposite the 
" Angel," and peering up and down the street. Per- 
haps he thought I should consider the matter more 
favourably at the last moment. He was mistaken. 
The coach rattled off, and Mr. Kirgall reached Berke- 
ley Square on the morrow, minus one parcel. 

'The Keverend Samuel Parr, curate in charge of 

22 Hoiv Shakespeare' s Skull was Stolen. 

HattoD, had shown the utmost reverence for the 
memory of Shakespeare ; and a quaint drawing of 
New Place, Stratford, was entrusted to his care by 
Mr, Colmore, of Birmingham, after the recent riots. 
This I saw being framed at Twamley's, in Warwick, 
a few days after the interview with Kirgall; and I 
suddenly decided, being so near Hatton, to sound the 
doctor about purchasing so rare a memento of his idol. 
My excuse must be youth and innocence, and a scantily 
furnished pocket. 

* Leaving Pritchard to drive the hired gig back to 
Stratford, I had a brisk walk to Hatton, the moon just 
showing the hoar-frost on the ground. Thinking that 
the vicarage would be handy to the church, I made my 
way there, but could see no house. There was a faint 
light from the tower, for the men were ringing to call 
Christmas. I well remember listening beneath the 
belfry window, an unusually lofty one ; and presently, 
when they paused, one man struck up the chorus of a 
carol which my old uncle sang at Studley when I was a 
child : 

' But Christmas then is Christmas now, though altered are the 
When we sate up at midnight to hear the merry chimes.* 

' In a few minutes I found myself at the back of the 
vicarage. " This door will do as well as any other," 
thought I ; and I gave a sturdy rap. 

The Result. 23 

• " Come in — come in," from a shrill voice, which I 
recognised, to my surprise, as the doctor's. 

* Somewhat abashed at my intrusion, I entered the 
kitchen. There, on one side of the wide hearth, sat 
the little great man in a well-padded library-chair, with 
his right leg resting on a settle, at the extreme end of 
which was a wiry old man, in brown vetteL^vaistcoat 
and nankeen breeches and gaiters, polishing*t|^hain, 
evidently the man-of-all-work. On the opposite side 
were seated two gaunt female servants, not the least 
in awe of their learned master. The visitors were, a 
clergyman, not known, but I think from Tamworth, 
and my old acquaintance, John Bartlam. 

* Dr. Parr, who resembled a short-horned bull, wore a 
shabby skull-cap, which, being much too large, now and 
then slipped forwards and rested on his bushy eye- 
brows. He had no whiskers, and the eyes were very 
searching. He wore a loose coat with large buttons, 
black breeches, and ribbed worsted stockings, with broad 
buckles to his shoes. He looked what he desired to 
be — the old-fasliioned country parson. 

'Laying down his pipe, he greeted me somewhat 
stiffly, but offered a bed. Waiting until the servants 
and the Tamworth visitor had retired, leaving the 
doctor and Mr. Bartlam over their grog, I ventured to 
hint at the object of my visit. Eecalling a former 
conversation, I cautiously felt my way. If such an 

24 Hczv Shakespeare' s Skull ivas Stolen. 

article could be procured, would Dr. Parr like to possess 
Shakespeare's skull % 

' " How could he possess it ?" he interposed testily; 
" it was in the grave, if anywhere." 

* I continued : " If you, sir, would make it worth the 
risk, I happen to know " 

' " Know what ?" he shouted. " Has that fellow Gar- 
rick left it to his wife ? He declared he would steal it 
at the Jubilee." 

' " Oh no !" I rejoined ; " it is there— that is " 

(with hesitation). 

' " Well then, sir, there let it be " (rolling out pom- 
pously), " ' And curst be he that moves my bones.' " 
Afterwards he added severely, " Jack Eartlam, I would 
have any man whipt at the cart's tail who violated the 
sanctity of that grave : it would be worse than Malone 
or sacrilege." 

' Seeing that I was utterly mistaken in my man, I 
changed the subject, and was relieved to get off 
to bed. 

' In the morning, as I was leaving, Mr. Bartlam 
walked a little way with me. He said, " Chambers, 
you have that skull !" There was something about 
John Bartlam which forbade subterfuge. He was 
genial and kind, and withal loved a joke ; so I told 
him. He became, however, very grave during the 
recital, and blamed me somewhat harshly, I then 
thought. He made me solemnly promise that the skull 

The Result. 25 

should be restored ; and I (cursing my ill-luck more 
than my folly) walked on to Teddy Easthorpe's, at 
Stratford, who drove me home.' 

' I repeatedly pressed my uncle,' writes the late 
Mr. M., 'to tell me whether the skull was ever really 
restored, and gleaned from him the following par- 
ticulars : 

' After waiting for the waning of that month's moon, 
Chambers had arranged with Tom Dyer to replace it 
one night in January, but was obliged to accompany 
his employer to Mr. Wilks's, at Coughton, to a case of 
compound fracture, whereupon Master Tom declared he 
could manage it all by himself, as he knew a way of 
getting into the church through the bone-house. The 
next day Dyer was paid, after taking an oath that he 
had buried the skull and made it all square, leaving no 

' On the following Sunday afternoon my uncle 
attended service at Stratford Church, on purpose to in- 
spect the slab. There were no marks of a second up- 
heaval, but there was an ominous crack right across the 
slab, about two feet from the end near the communion 
rails, and this might not long escape observation. To 
see Dyer was my uncle's first impulse, and he sought 
him early the next morning. He had gone to do some 
repairs at Welford Mill; and, later in the day, my 
uncle, after calling upon a cousin (at Clifford, I believe), 

26 How Shakespeare's Skull was Stolen. 

traced Dyer to the little front parlour of the " Four 
Alls," near the bridge crossing the Avon. 

'Tom, who was alone and drinking like a fish, at 
first protested that there was nothing up with the stone. 
After considerable evasion, he admitted that it was " a 
mighty dale heavier than he thought : that he had just 
lifted one end half an inch or so when it began to 
snap ; and to prevent further mischief he laid it down 

* " You rascal ! then you never buried that skull !" 

' Tom declared, however, that the old chap was there 
beneath, as safe as a door-nail.' 

* Again I asked my uncle, " Do you think that the 
skull was ever really restored f He was silent for a 
minute, and then quoted its owner for about the first 
time in his life : 

( (( 'Twere to consider too curiously to consider so." ' 



Since there appeared in the Argosy for October, 1879, 
the startling account of ' How Shakespeare's Skull was 
Stolen,' I, the Warwickshire man therein alluded to, 
have been beset with letters and queries from every 
conceivable quarter. Nor has the excitement abated. 
The proposed exhumation of Shakespeare's bones has 
revived the controversy. The above narrative has been 
copied in extenso in London and provincial papers. 
Dr. Ingleby has alluded to it in his recent work on 
'Shakespeare's Bones;' and a whisper having been 
extensively circulated that I could reveal much more if 
I desired, I have been entreated from America and 
Germany especially to clear up the mystery by telling 
all I know. Fortunately I am able, after years of un- 
tiring research, to bring to light a series of facts almost 
stranger than fiction ; and which facts prove con- 
clusively that the skull of the immortal bard does not 
rest in the great chancel of Stratford Church. 

30 Hozv Shakespeare's Skull was Foimd. 

How do I prove this ? I will tell you. 

Among the cherished companions of the now notable 
Frank Chambers, at the beginning of this century, was 

Lieutenant J. L , a young gentleman who seems to 

have found the presence of a stepmother so inimical to 
domestic peace that he preferred the more honourable 
warfare of serving on board His Britannic Majesty's 
ship Goliath against the French. During three or four 
years the correspondence between the friends was as 
regular and entertaining as that between Horace "Wal- 
pole and Sir Horace Mann. Supplemented by other 
letters from Eobert Bartlam and Thomas Hemming, 
they furnish an interesting picture of the social 
amenities of the fine old English gentleman, imbued 
with fine old English prejudices and full-bodied port, to 
be found in the venerable town of Alcester, eighty 
years ago. But the friendship between Frank Chambers 

and Lieutenant J. L suffered a sad eclipse in the 

memorable year 1804. The young soldier, impatient 
of the cautious hesitation of his commander, was 
at length allowed by Captain Brisbane to go with 
Lieutenant Kent, the first lieutenant of the ship, and 
endeavour to cut off a small vessel that was standing 
in shore. That vessel escaped their vigilance ; but, 
nothing daunted, they attacked a large brig, defended 
by French soldiers, and brought her out. Lieutenant 

L was dangerously wounded ; and then follows an 

episode which shows that the spirit of Sir Philip 

Hozv Shakespeare's Skull was Found. 31 

Sidney still animates British hearts. For thus writes 
that ever courteous and chivalric gentleman — George 
Edward Eoby, Captain, Eoyal Marines, to the afflicted 
father, under date of Jan. 8th, 1804 : 

* It is impossible to do justice to your son's greatness 
of mind, as the night it happened he refused to be 
dressed until a poor wounded marine soldier had first 
had assistance; afterwards, of course, every attention 
was paid him by all his messmates, and the greatest 
care taken by the surgeon of him ; and we had the 
happiness, as we thought, of seeing him do well until 
the 23 rd ult. at night, when the ship had a great deal 
of pitching motion, which unfortunately ruptured a 
very large bloodvessel, by which it was understood 
that death must in the end ensue ; this gave him time, 
poor dear fellow, to settle his affairs, and make his 
peace with the Almighty, which I assure you, sir, he 
did in the most sincere, manly and Christian-like 
manner possible, so that his resignation, fortitude, and 
patience became the astonishment of us all,' etc. 

Captain Eoby afterwards sent the accoutrements 
and other property of his dear friend, amongst thorn 
that packet of letters which eventually came into my 
hands as the lieutenant's direct descendant, and by 
which I am enabled, after much difficulty, to solve this 
startling mystery. 

32 Hoiv Shakespeare s Skull luas Found. 

In those letters I had noticed allusions by Chambers 
to ' an unheard-of adventure,' ' a surprising visit,' 
' something which must only be talked of betwixt you 
and me ;' and yet three years afterwards this reluctance 
to particularize seems to grow less ; and he writes on 
December 17th, 1803, ' I will send the strange account 
j^'ou ask for, to wait for you at Mr. Pitway's, Baldwins 
Gardens, Leather Lane, Holborn.' 

That this ' strange account ' could not mean the 
night adventure at Stratford Church I saw at a glance. 
That happened years before Lieutenant L. left Al- 
cester ; and, judging from his close intimacy with 
Chambers, would be well known to him. I could not 
help thinking that this obscure reference had something 
to do with the return of Shakespeare's skull. Once 
again, therefore, I carefully examined the numerous 
papers left by the late Mr. jNI. and the various memo- 
randa of Frank Chambers, of which I have already 
made good use. There was no fresh discovery. I have 
also in my possession some books and papers left by 
the brother-in-law of Lieutenant L. — the very surgeon 
at Alcester with whom Chambers was long associated, 
and who, as persons there living may remember, was 
found dead one dark morning in Weethley Lane many 
years ago, There was one bulky packet, consisting 
apparently of pages torn from a professional day-book, 
going back to 1798 ; and this packet had been sub- 
jected to great pressure, for the leaves stuck together. 

How Shakespeare s Skull zvas Found. 33 

After unravelling some dozen, I came, to my surprise, 
upon three rambling letters in boyish roundhand to 
Chambers, detailing experiments made in a laboratory, 
signed Peter Woulfe ; and then to a soiled pamphlet, 
* The Jockey Club ; a Sketch of the Manners of the 
Age,' inscribed 'Webb, Salford, 1793 3' and last of all 
was a rough envelope, made from large-sized note paper, 
sealed with two common red wafers, eaten away by 
time. I trembled with excitement to see several sheets 
of manuscript in the well-known hand of Chambers, 
and within these was another leaflet, out of which 
dropt a small piece of bone. 

Yes ! a small piece of bone. I declare to you, that 
I have it before me as I write. Dark on the outside ; 
slightly curved, of irregular outline, measuring two 
inches by one, and a quarter of an inch in its thickest 
part. I observed that it was formed of numberless 
tiny cells, and there was a coating of brown mould on 
the inside. WeU ! it was no unusual thing for a 
surgeon to possess a human skull ; but why was this 
fragment so carefully secreted % I handled it reverently, 
for somehow I felt convinced that I should now clear 
up the mystery of ' Shakespeare's Skull.' 

I at once examined the manuscript. It contained a 
startling adventure which could only happen to medical 
men nearly a hundred years ago ; and which the writer, 
Frank Chambers, had probably intended to forward to 
Lieutenant L. had the latter lived. Every care had 


34 Hoiv Shakespeare' s Skull zvas Found. 

been taken to conceal the locality ; and it will be seen 
shortly how I was able to identify it. 

' I had been sent for,' writes Chambers, ' on a cruelly 
cold night in December, to an outlandish parish. 
Heavy snow lay on the rough roads. This had thawed 
during the day, and was now set hard with a keen 
frost, so that it was near midnight before I could gain 
the top of the last hill. Leaving my gig at the small 
public, I walked to an old-fashioned house adjoining a 
churchyard, where the patient was said to be. I 
thumped at the doors, I threw jacky stones at the 
windows ; not a sound. *' A pretty mess," you will 

* " Why, Tom," said I, as a man suddenly swept 
round the corner, with a " Hold on there !" " Why, 
Tom Dyer, is that you ?" 

' " I knowed you'd come," replied Tom, chuckling; "it 
hain't thear, but up here," jerking a finger towards the 

* " Now, measter; me and my pal" (pointing towards 
a gaunt fellow in a tattered gabardine) " 'uU pay you 
'ansum, if you will follow us and doctor my sister, his 
missus ; but if you shine a light, or tell folks weer you 

a bin, by Ave'll make you like these ere white 

stuns !" 

' " All right," I whispered ; " don't be a fool. You 
can't show me greater secrets than I know already." In 
fact, I felt more curious than fearful, remembering how 

Hozo Shakespeare's Skull was Found. 35 

seldom a doctor comes to harm, even among foot- 

*"Iwas sartin sure I could trust you," continued 
Tom Dyer deferentially; "mind the brambles, sir." 

' "We had reached an angle of the church, formed by 
the jutting out of a tall building ; and at the base, con- 
cealed by a thicket of gorse and thorns, was an irregular 
opening in the masonry, from whence came a ruddy 

* " Try back'ards, legs fust," said Tom, as I sought 
in vain to wriggle myself through. After a hard 
struggle, I was down ; whilst my companions, much 
larger men, slid through the opening like cats. 

* For a moment I was completely dazed by what I 
saw. Huge coffins partly covered with tattered cloth, 
and massive shields still bright, and on them grim 
helmets, gauntlets, and swords with glittering hilts, and 
crucifixes curiously wrought ; whilst the near-hand 
niches were resplendent with costly urns, oval in shape, 
and richly chased , on one of which I read " CARISSIMUS, 
1623." All these were lighted up by a bronze lamp 
once used for a very different purpose, aided by glow- 
ing embers of charcoal in a brazier placed near a 
latticed door, through which the fumes passed under 
some steps into the empty church. This, then, was the 
spacious vault, nearly co-extensive with the chapel over- 
head, of the once wealthiest family in the Midlands. 
But I had no time for further thought. A woman, 


36 Hozv Shakespeare's Skull %uas Found. 

prematurely old, and wrapped in a ragged hearse-cloth, 
lay moaning on a bench near the wall, to which a side 
had been roughly added from materials only too handy. 
She was badly burned in pear-like spots on the legs. 
" A sad misfortin to come so quick after getting here ; 
bilirig the kettle, and it tilted over," exclaimed the man 
who had not yet spoken. 

* There was another fellow, about eighteen, perhaps 
the son, who sat in a narrow opening to a small chamber, 
swaying his legs and chewing tobacco. 

* " Get down, Jim, and give the gentleman some 
rags," said the woman. 

* " Let me help you," I exclaimed, as the sturdy 
youth, holding the lamp, thrust his body into the 
aperture, and stretched his hand towards a bundle of 
clothes. I leant over him, and any doubt as to the 
occupation of my companions was dispelled. On 
a square block of wood I saw a heap of dies and 
discs ; and near them rough counters, such as were 
formerly used as checks or passes in theatres ; clippers 
and iron bolts, with three or four packages like corn- 
samples neatly tied. I pretended to be too intent on 
the bandages to notice anything. 

'" There," said I, rubbing in the salve, brought for 
the scald for which I had been summoned, " keep the 
skin moist, and put her in a sweat." 

' I did not refuse a strong pull at the demijohn pro- 
duced by Tom Dyer from among some iron pots, for 

How Shakespeare s Skull zvas Found. y/ 

the closeness of the vault aud the fumes of the charcoal 
nearly knocked me over; and yet stronger than all was 
the odour of incense, reminding me of Sundays at 
Abbeville. How could that smell arise 1 

' I persuaded Tom to return with me to the surgery 
to bring back a noted palliative for burns which Sally 
Edkins had given me to settle her bill. 

' In the gig we spoke very little ; but when we were 
slowly passing an old hall once belonging to our family, 
Tom, who had warmed with the liquor, began confi- 
dentially, *' One good turn desarves another, doctor ; 
and now I don't mind a-telling you as how I was druv 
away in a fright from Stratford Church before I could 
bury that old skull ; so, thinks I, as Measter Chambers 
seems so uncommon particular to have him under cover, 
I'll just pop him into one of them wessels in this ere 
wault. And tJuit I did, I'll sweai, last night ; clipping 
this bit out on him to leave a kind of mark, d'ye see, 
for you to tell him by when you next comes to see my 
mate's missus," 

' To pitch the fellow out of the gig for his knavery 
was my first impulse, but my better judgment pre- 
vailed. I received the fragment in silence, inwardly 
vowing that the complete skull should be returned to 
its old resting-place at Stratford. After all, what could 
I expect from such a boor 1 That I was under peculiar 
obligations to him Tom knew well enough. I con- 
cealed my indignation, treated him to a bottle of 

38 hozv Shakespeare's Skull was Found. 

cockagee in the surgery, sent him back with the oint- 
ment, and promised to see the patient three nights 

At this point, most provokingly, the narrative abruptly 
ends. Probably Frank Chambers was fearful of be- 
traying the hiding-place of these unfortunates ; one of 
whom I have identified as being defended by Campbell 
in 1814, and afterwards hung in chains near Stour- 
bridge. There was reason for such fear, for, among 
the 160 offences at that time punishable with death, 
coining was especially noticeable. The culprit was at 
first strangled, and then the body thrust into the fire ; 
but in the case of Phebe Harris, a few years earlier, 
the wretched woman, owing to the cruel blunder of the 
executioner, was tossed alive into the flames. 

After reading the manuscript, I sought for further 
explanation in the leaflet wrapped round the relic. The 
handwriting was Chambers's, merely part of a bill : 

' Dr. to Thomas Dyer. 

Por refixing clapper of new bell ... 4s. 3d. 

For seeing to stays and clips ... ... 3s. 8d. 

The rest had gone. I saw at once that, Dyer being 
iUiterate, the doctor had made out a bill for him which 
had not been used. I then surmised that Shakespeare's 
skull had not been replaced in the grave at Stratford ; 
and I was intensely eager to trace its whereabout. 

Hoiv Shakespeare's Skull zvas Found. 39 

Every name and date had been cautiously concealed ; 
but fortunately I have a faculty for analysis, and readily 
drew my own conclusions. 

Of the several parishes visited within an easy drive 
of Alcester, Studley at first claimed my attention for 
three reasons : the solitary situation of its church ; the 
stately manor house, once belonging to the Chamberses, 
skirting the high-road ; and the fact that Frank's 
young cousin, afterwards curate of the parish, lodged 
at Hard wick ; but I found nothing to correspond with 
a large mortuary chapel. So also at the ' outlandish ' 
parish of Ipsley. I saw the ' plain farmhouse, close to 
the church,' mentioned by Chambers in his diary, and 
* the dilapidated glebe-house,' still standing as in his 
day ; but I looked in vain for the ' small public,' or for 
any imposing vault of the great family of Huband, so 
long lords of the surrounding soil. After a week's 
fruitless search, I was driving one afternoon along the 
Alcester and Birmingham road, when my pony cast a 
shoe, just opposite the quaint mansion half-way up 
Gorcot Hill. Sending the animal to a smithy, I was 
not sorry to call at a house which, as a child, I asso- 
ciated with the Dingley Dell of * Pickwick.' The 
great hall, with long oaken tables, and the ancient dais 
still remaining ; the deeply mullioned windows with 
remnants of stained glass, and the panelled parlour 
beyond, where hang in courtly robes the faded portraits 
of forgotten s(i[uires and dames. 

40 Hozv Shakespeare s Sh<ll was Found. 

' Who are these ?' I asked. 

* My grandfather used to say,' replied the venerable 
tenant, Mr. Aldington, ' that they were a family named 

' Did they own this place f 

' I never heard so, and I have been here over fifty 

years ; but I do remember, as a lad, seeing scrawled on 

a loose pane in the window over the porch : 

' " When five generations have come and gone, 

Then Will Chambers's heir shall have his own." ' 

I was delighted with the discovery : for this must 
be the old hall alluded to by the doctor, and I was on 
the right track at last. 

I continued my journey, and leaving the main road 
at the Bowling Green Inn, I found myself, one quarter 
of an hour later, close to a venerable church, placed at 
an elevation commanding most extensive views of the 
country around. An old man (not the sexton) was 
trimming a grave, and the tower-door was open. There 
was a neat residence adjoining the road south of the 

'That,' said the old man, 'is where the "public" 
stood, and the wardens cast up their accounts : a great 
place for cock-fighting when Master Batten kep' itj 
but it was before my day.' 

' Is that the Vicarage ?' I inquired, pointing to a 
white house close to the churchyard. 

* Yes, sir : that's where the parson lives.' 

How Shakespeare' s Sktill was Found. 41 

So far the evidence was cumulative. Only one 
point puzzled me. It is plain, from his description, 
that Chambers came and returned by way of Gorcot 
Hill ; but a moment's reflection convinced mo that the 
state of the roads caused him to choose the longer 
road as the best — perhaps the only one passable. 

When opposite the tower, I turned to the left ; and, 
sure enough, parallel with the chancel was a lofty build- 
ing projecting ten feet from the north aisle. In the 
corner thus formed all bushes had disappeared with 
the advent of rural deans ; but I saw at once that a 
rough opening eighteen inches square at the base of 
the projecting stonework had been recently filled in. 

* Ah, yes !' replied my informant, ' there used to be 
a grating to air the vault, till the bars got stole ; and 
then, I've heard say as old Thomas Moore filled it up 
at the burial of Madam Sheldon, seventy years ago.' 

' Were they Eomanists f I eagerly asked. 

' N'o ! — the old uns was born and bred in the 

Leaving the patriarch somewhat astonished at my 
impetuosity, I hurriedly passed through the tower to 
the end of the north aisle, and I found myself in a re- 
markable mortuary chapel, surrounded by magnificent 
tombs under canopies, and costly tablets of the once 
notable Sheldons. 

There needed not the ' E.I. P.' below the inscriptions 
to show their form of faith ; for under the great east 

42 How Shakespeare s Skull was Found. 

window (blocked with monuments since mass ceased 
to be celebrated by Father Bruck) stands in situ the 
beautiful altar placed there even so late as 1560 : a gift 
from the then Pope to the head of the Sheldon family. 
I stamped with my foot ; all was hollow save the space 
sixteen feet by six round the altar. The chapel is three 
feet above the level of the north aisle ; and under the 
steps leading thereto I carefully noticed the entrance to 
the vault, through a door rotten with damp and age. 

Ascending the tower, I discovered the inscription on 
the latest bell to be : ' WILLM. PITTS AND THOS. 

I then examined, by permission of the vicar, the 
churchwardens and constables' accounts ; or rather, 
sundry crumbling portions of them, going back to 
1658 ; and my conclusions were singularly confirmed 
by this entry, under 1799 : 'Paid to Thomas Dyer of 
Aulcester, for repairing new bell, as per bill, 17s. 3d.' 

That this is also the year in which Prank Chambers 
visited the vault is evident from the fact that he 
alludes to the house adjoining the churchyard being 
vacant ; and certain entries imply, if they do not 
actually prove, that, upon the death of the occupier, 
the Eeverend William Brittain, in December, 1799, the 
vicarage-house was void for some months, until the 
appointment of Dr. Samuel Parr's favourite pupil — 
the Eeverend John Bartlam, in the following year. 

Hoiv S J lake spe are's Skull was Fotind. 43 

Christmas at midnight in an old church. With a 
faithful confidant and dark lanterns like Guido Faux, 
we raised the framework of the steps, and squeezing 
through the aperture, felt our way down the corre- 
sponding steps leading to the vault. As I expected, 
the heavy door yielded to momentary pressure — in fact, 
it had already been displaced. I confess, that notwith- 
standing the laudable intention of my enterprise, I felt 
squeamish, and my breath came short and quick, as 
I and my companion stood at this solemn hour in the 
presence of so much death. Even the remembrance 
that ' the sleeping and the dead are but as pictures,' 
almost failed to screw one's ' courage to the sticking- 
place.' The lanterns threw a ghastly gleam on the 
numerous O'pen coffins, and I noticed, terror-struck, 
that some had struggled in their sleep ; and some 
were half-raised ; and some, perfect in outline^ were 
swathed tightly in cerecloth, looking as if they had 
turned to marble from so long waiting with affright 
in the awful darkness. I examined more closely, and 
found that many of the older coffins had been rifled ; 
whilst one delicate form, still bearing the sweet odours 
of foreign embalming, being probably that of Mary 
Sheldon, nun at Louvain, had been wantonly muti- 
lated. The leaden shells were doubtless melted by 
the coiners, and the lids of the outer coffins of oak 
were taken perchance by reason of their rich embla- 
zonry. Helmet and sword had vanished, but here 

44 How Shakespeare's Skull ivas Found. 

and there was a rusty gauntlet, and crucifixes of solid 
silver of exquisite -workmansliip lay upon the breasts 
of the sleepers. 

Thank goodness, superstitious fear had preserved 
them! Frank Chambers must have been mistaken as 
to the niches, for I found no trace of such ; and where 
were the costly urns ? At the head of the embalmed 
body of ' The Eight Honourable Lady Marie, wife to 
the Eight "Worshipful Ealph Sheldon, Esq. ' (whose 
mysterious death in London at the house of her father, 
Lord Eivers, in 1623, caused such a stir at the time), 
was a plain bracket and a phial, probably of holy 
water; and near the immense coffin of Ealph Sheldon, 
the last of the family, who was brought from Donning- 
ton Park, Berkshire, in 1822, the wall was blackened 
by the action of fire. We trod upon a yielding mass 
of decayed wood, mixed with nails and fragments of 
escutcheons silver gilt, showing how many generations 
had been here magnificently interred, even since that 
imposing pageantry which marked the obsequies of the 
renowned William Sheldon, on January 15th, 1.371, 
when Eobert Cooke, Esq., and other heralds came down 
from London to fix helmet, and sword, and rich 
achievement against the chapel walls, and to pronounce 
with pompous eulogy the worth and titles of the 
deceased. At a sight so weirdly impressive as this 
spacious vault at midnight, I forgot for the moment the 
object of my search ; and wben I looked round the 

How Shakespeare s Skull %vas Found. 45 

naked walls, my heart sank at the idea that the 
precious skull had been lost beyond recovery. There 
was, however, one hope. At the foot of an ancient 
coffin, on which was written below a shield bearing 
three sheldrakes, ' EALPH SHELDON DEPARTED 
MERCY, AMEN. tETAT SViE, 60' (that steadfast 
loyalist, whose concise epitaph, ' Quondam Radulphus 
Sheldon Nunc Cinis, Pulvis, Nihil,' startles all readers), 
I discovered the narrow opening into another chamber 
described by the doctor. It was just beneath the re- 
markable effigies of "William and Elizabeth Sheldon ; 
and doubtless once contained their dust. But it had 
long been used as an ossuary ; and all that I could at 
first see, when I had squeezed half my body through 
the slit, was a heap of gigantic bones, which, when 
padded with sinew and flesh, must have cracked many a 
skull on Bosworth Field. Yet stop ! in the corner 
nearest to me, so near that by lying flat I could clutch 
the rim with my left hand, was a plain earthenware 
vessel, in shape like a kettledrum, and once hermetic- 
ally sealed with the like cerecloth which envelopes the 
Lady Marie. "With nervous energy I dragged the 
heavy jar to the larger vault. The cover had been 
rudely rent, and the viscera of the Right "Worshipful 
Ralph had dissolved into a sediment of dark mud, 
which was mingled with clippings and rude pellets of 

46 How Shakespeare's Skull zoas Found. 

lead ; but, ' Oh rapture !' resting on these was an 
undersized skull, with a prominent forehead marred by 
a jagged hole. Over that hole I placed the fragment I 
had brought with me : it fitted emdlrj/ THE VERI- 


Elliot Stock, Paternoster Rmr, London. 




Santa Barbara 





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